5 Stories of Success

Local nonprofits and the lives they change


efore and after the glittering galas, Ventura County nonprofit organizations have a job to do. Just what that job is, however, tends to get lost in the glare of high-profile fundraising events. But when the black ties come off, it’s back to business.

Retired Ventura Police Chief Pat Miller stands behind the Boys & Girls Club. At left, he relays a story of success that began 25 years ago on The Avenue and continues today in the Middle East.


What young boy doesn’t dream of being a secret agent, or a globetrotting emissary for the forces of good? Twenty-five years ago, Retired Ventura Police Chief Pat Miller found one such boy huddled in the doorway of the Boys & Girls Club of Ventura on the city’s west side. Now a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, Colonel Robert Miranda is on his third tour of duty in Iraq. For national security reasons, his name has been changed in this article and no photos may be published.

But Miller remembers clearly. “I was working The Avenue in a black and white,” he said. “It had been raining, and as I drove down Olive from Stanley I looked to my left at the Boys & Girls Club and saw something move.” Miller got out of his patrol car to investigate and found—crouched in a dry corner of the doorway—a 10-year-old kid. “I asked what he was doing there,” said Miller, “and he replied that it was the only safe place he knew.”

Robert’s brother was in a gang, and while his parents were at work he and other gang members hung out at the house. “Robert was afraid of what might happen,” explained Miller, “so he left home and ran to the Boys & Girls Club. We got into my police car and went to the Vagabond Restaurant for breakfast. Since then, for 25 years, we’ve stayed in touch. He is one of the youngest Colonels in the United States Army, and has consistently told me that his participation in the Boys & Girls Club of Ventura was what got him through.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Ventura has five locations. For detailed information, visit or call 805.641.5585.

There are seven other clubs in Ventura County: Oxnard/Hueneme, Conejo, Santa Paula, Fillmore, Simi Valley, and Camarillo. For the Boys & Girls Club location nearest you, log on to and enter your zip code.


In 2002, Patrick Kelley, now a youthful 51-year-old, was admitted to the hospital for HIV-related pneumonia. The doctors did not expect the former methamphetamine user to live. But he did, and soon found himself at the offices of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance—a nonprofit that provides services and programming designed to meet the needs of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and those affected by HIV/AIDS.

Martin Perrier was Kelly’s case manager at the time. “I worked to assess Patrick’s needs, but it was difficult because he would limit his conversations to a few minutes and rarely make eye contact,” he said. Over time, Kelley opened up and began to speak about his life as an HIV-positive man. “When you test positive, you don’t know if you are going to be isolated and abandoned by friends and family,” said Kelly. “You don’t know how you are going to be treated.”

After years as a client, Kelley decided he wanted to give back to his community. As an outreach worker in the nonprofit’s Education and Prevention Program, he began working with Ventura County residents who were at risk for HIV infection, engaging them in honest discussions about their sexual practices and what steps they were taking to keep themselves and their partners HIV-negative. He also worked alongside HIV test counselors, speaking with clients who had just tested preliminary positive for HIV, assuring them that, while their life had changed, it wasn’t over. “I want to make sure that people are aware there are services out there, and people who are willing to lend support,” he said.

Moving from client to case manager has indeed changed Kelley’s life, giving him the chance to give back and appreciate those who have supported him. “I didn’t do this on my own,” he said. “I’ve always had huge amounts of support, especially from my friends, family, doctors, mental health, public health, volunteers, and staff. I’m very grateful for those people.”

For more information about Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, or to make a donation, log on to or call 805.653.5711.


Raising kids is a challenge for anyone. And for a single father with two girls, it is a particularly daunting task. Just ask Steve Samuels. The Ventura-based father of Dayna, 12, and Emma, 10, knows how stressful it can be. For the Samuels family, swimming helps relieve some of dad’s stress while providing an outlet for the simmering energy of youth. But finding funds isn’t easy, especially in the current economic climate.

Thankfully, the Ventura YMCA offers their Open Doors Program, part of the organization’s 122-year mission to provide health and happiness to the community. “The Open Doors Program has helped my girls to stay active,” said Samuels. “It’s been absolutely great for my kids, who are both on the swim team, as it offered them an outlet for working through the growing challenges we faced.”

The Ventura YMCA uses a sliding fee scale in their Open Doors Program, designed to meet the financial limitations of families and individuals. For some, this means an opportunity to live a positive, healthy life with one less financial worry.

The Samuels family goes to the YMCA about three times a week. “Anybody in a need of a social safety net for themselves or their kids couldn’t pick a better place,” said Samuels. “I don’t know what we would have done without the YMCA or its wonderfully supportive staff. It’s definitely been our sanctuary.”

For details on the Open Doors Program or more information about the Ventura Family YMCA, call 805.642.2131 or log on to To find your local YMCA, visit and enter your zip code.

Executive Director Debra Tosch and Gypsy take a playful approach to serious training.


In 1997, Debra Tosch, then living in Indiana, answered an advertisement looking for volunteers to work with a fledgling nonprofit in Ventura County, California. The organization was focused on strengthening disaster response—locally and on the national level—by partnering rescued dogs with firefighters to find people who’d been trapped in the wreckage of disasters. “I had done wilderness search and rescue in the past and knew the value of having a highly-skilled canine on hand to find people. I liked the new, innovative program founder Wilma Melville had developed using rescued dogs and partnering them with firefighters,” recalled Tosch. 

Founder Wilma Melville (front) with local search teams.

Melville founded the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) in 1996 after she and her dog Murphy were deployed to the Oklahoma City bombing. The organization consisted of three rescued dogs and a tiny Ojai office. Debra and her Labrador retriever, Abby, joined the team, and she went on to become a canine handler, serving Ventura County and the nation as part of California Task Force I. Together, Debra and Abby were deployed to national disasters including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Locally, they’ve responded to the La Conchita mudslide and other urban and wilderness searches. 

While active as a handler, Debra also served as SDF’s program director. In 2006, she retired from active service as a handler to succeed Melville as executive director. “Our goal is to create a national training center so we can consolidate our canine care and search team training into one location and provide a place where all the country’s search teams will receive advanced training,” said Tosch, who is also a FEMA Search Team Evaluator and currently serves on the FEMA Canine Sub-Group, a committee of six that helps develop policy for the nation. “Running the agency is a 24/7 job,” she said. “Like our founder, who is now an avid aviator, I’ll probably finally get into hobbies when I retire.”

For more information about the Search Dog Foundation, including how to become a volunteer or donate a dog, log on to or call 888.459.4376.

The Rube family at home, October 2009. Left to right: Michael, Randi, Jacob, and Jordan.


One year ago, Randi Rube, a single mom in Simi Valley, was raising three rambunctious boys in a 900-square-foot apartment with two bedrooms. “My boys slept in one room, and there was only one bathroom,” said Rube, who works full-time in a medical office. “I was the only girl so I had to wait in line.”

There is a smile in her voice, but the confining space was clearly a problem for her growing boys. So when Rube heard that Habitat for Humanity of Ventura County planned to build some homes in her area, she decided to try her luck. Nearly a year later, her application was accepted. “It was the best day of my life,” she said. “My older child got teary-eyed when they asked, ‘So are you guys ready to start building?’”

One year ago, helping build their home.


Habitat for Humanity builds new homes for low-income families with decent credit who suffer from overcrowding and/or unsafe living conditions. But the chosen family must be willing to invest sweat equity—actually helping build their home or another Habitat project. “The people made it great to be out there working,” said Rube. Her eldest son, Michael, now has his own bedroom, and the nine-year-old twins, Jordan and Jacob, have a backyard to play in. “I feel like Habitat for Humanity gave my family peace.”

See for the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. The organization’s main website can be found at


Back to top